Wealthy business leaders from “as far south as Peru” and “as far north as Canada” have been converging on the suburban town of Sunrise, FL recently, and it’s not because of great prices at their outlet mall. No, the Sunrise police have been offering kilos of cocaine at extremely low prices. $18-24,000 appears to be their general asking price range per kilo of cocaine, but Sunrise Police have been extremely flexible on giving two-for-one or consignment deals, attracting buyers from all over the country and abroad at a time when wholesale cocaine prices are extremely high (up to $37,000 per kilo in Miami, according to the DEA), prompting many potential traffickers to make the trek to south Florida for a chance to score big in the drug game. So what exactly is the incentive for Sunrise PD to invite potentially violent drug traffickers to meet at popular family restaurants (McDonald’s, Chili’s, Steak ‘n Shake) in their quiet suburban town despite protests from local mothers? The answer is as simple as it is horrifying: the promise of a quick and easy payday due to asset forfeiture laws, which allow police to lure would-be cocaine buyers into their jurisdiction to separate them from their cash, vehicle, and any other property of value. Sunrise police generally had a kilo of real cocaine on hand for most deals, often forcefully encouraging the buyer to try it. The police posed as dealers in a long-term reverse sting operation that arguably crossed the line into illegal entrapment.
While drug control laws lead to arrests and long prison sentences for would-be cocaine buyers (even non-violent offenders must serve 85% of their sentence in Florida), asset forfeiture laws essentially allow police to rob people labeled felons, offenders, or even just suspects of everything they have, including their cash, vehicle, and any property on them when trying to purchase cocaine. By coercing people to come to Sunrise from not only outside of their jurisdiction, but even from outside of the country as was the case with one man from Alberta, Canada, Sunrise has basically declared that they have international jurisdiction in the War on Drugs. In the case of the Canadian man, who never took possession of any cocaine or the car it was in, he was let go, though $300,000 had already been collected by a federal agent in Chicago for the cocaine. Involving federal agents in any capacity expands the agency’s jurisdiction outside of Sunrise, FL to wherever they think they will hit a big payday and federal involvement lowers the evidentiary standard for forfeiture from “clear and convincing evidence” (FL state law) to “a preponderance of evidence.” The Federal Equitable Sharing Program means that local and state law enforcement agencies working with a federal agency (even just one federal agent in a minor role, such as the federal agent who collected the $300,000 in Chicago for cocaine to be collected in Sunrise) can receive up to 80% of forfeiture proceeds. Sunrise spent over $9.9 million in federal sharing funds between 2008 and 2012, more than any municipality in the state.
Asset forfeiture laws allow law enforcement agencies to seize cash and vehicles that have been involved in the commission of a felony (such as attempting to buy cocaine), but no criminal charges need to be filed to seize assets through civil forfeiture, which carries a lower evidentiary standard than criminal asset seizure, which requires a criminal conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. Police may seize a person’s assets through the civil process before filing criminal charges in order to make it more difficult to have those assets returned. Without access to one’s assets, it becomes nearly impossible to mount a solid defense in a criminal case. In fact, assets may be frozen before a defendant goes to trial and sometimes before they are even charged with a crime. This is an egregious violation of 6th Amendment rights. A person denied access to their own funds will not be able to hire counsel of choice, a fundamental constitutional right guaranteed by the 6th Amendment ensuring that criminal defendants have a fair trial. In addition to preventing defendants from hiring counsel of choice, potential buyers coming to Sunrise do not have information on higher level dealers that law enforcement or prosecutors would find useful because the police are the dealers. The goal of most stings is to get information from lower-level dealers so police can reach and imprison big-time dealers and take those drugs off the street. By abandoning the strategy of trying to go up the chain to make big busts, Sunrise police and prosecutors are admitting that they are not able to put a dent in the supply of drugs. While many people would refuse a deal that would result in them being labeled a snitch, the fact that police know that the potential buyers do not have information on bigger dealers, but arrest them anyway is further evidence that reverse stings are about money for law enforcement agencies rather than keeping drugs off the street or making their way up the supply chain to bigger, more violent dealers.
Families are destroyed as jointly-held assets are not immune to police seizure. Police and prosecutors may actually win forfeiture cases even when the property owner is acquitted because, in forfeiture cases, the property is assumed to be involved in criminal activity unless the owner can prove that it was not going to be used in a crime! Put another way, while a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, the property seized is considered “guilty” until proven to not have a connection to a crime (the case is made against the property, not a person, making it extremely difficult to retrieve). Loved ones are forced to watch as the criminal justice system doles out a heaping spoonful of injustice on the defendant while the family struggles to pay their bills and put food on the table. Meanwhile, narcotics officers are buying new vehicles and weapons, styling themselves as heavily armed, paramilitary warrior cops. Forfeiture money funds overtime pay for narcotics officers and pays for an extensive network of untrained confidential informants under their direction. In some cases, ranking narcotics officers and detectives are making well into six figures per year while homicide detectives are only bringing home a fraction of that because violent murderers and rapists do not generally carry as much cash or valuable property as drug dealers/users and tend to be more difficult to catch. A felony arrest for murder or sexual assault may give the arresting officer more satisfaction, but narcotics officers will always be higher-paid and more valued because they bring in more funds for the police department and arrest far more people. Racketeering (RICO) and conspiracy laws mean that a single narcotics bust can result in dozens of arrests for fairly minor, non-violent drug crimes that, when tied together, can trigger longer sentences if participants are believed to be even tangentially involved in the operation of a criminal organization involved in selling drugs. Conspiracy charges can be brought against a group when two or more people are believed to have agreed to commit a crime at some point in the future.
The Sunrise Police Department went out of their way to bring in as many potential buyers as possible, seemingly doing whatever was necessary to lure people into Sunrise so that they could be separated from their assets, which went to fund Sunrise drug enforcement units and overtime for narcotics officers. A dozen of Sunrise’s undercover narcotics officers have legally stolen $1.2 million collectively since 2010 in overtime pay while conducting these reverse stings. During that same period, Sgt. Hughes, tasked with running reverse stings day-to-day, brought in $240,000 in overtime, which, on top of his base salary, meant he brought home more than his direct supervisor or the Sunrise police chief. These numbers are quite possibly lower than what police actually brought in as one case investigated by Sunrise police involving Sgt. Hughes ended in the seizure of $96,000, which has been completely unaccounted for—the money simply vanished with no comment from Sunrise PD or the DEA. The missing $96,000 demonstrates the need for transparency and extensive oversight of such a far-reaching reverse sting operation that raises serious entrapment concerns. The records documenting the seizure of that cash simply do not exist, raising questions about how exactly this reverse sting program was run.
While Sunrise police claim they were just trying to lock up the “bad guys,” it’s too convenient that all of the “bad guys” rounded up were lured into a situation where police knew they would have large amounts of cash, which would mostly end up back in the police department’s coffers. When the Sun-Sentinel revealed the Sunrise PD’s shady tactics, the department immediately went on the defensive with attempts to explain how a program that resulted in 190 cocaine trafficking arrests, only 7 involving people who actually lived in Sunrise did not constitute entrapment before eventually refusing to comment. Entrapment occurs when police conduct causes a person who would otherwise be unlikely to commit a crime to break the law. Sunrise police argue that south Florida is where people come to buy cocaine, but it is extremely unlikely that many of these people would have attempted to purchase cocaine from Sunrise police if police were not offering it at such low prices. Neighboring cities in Broward County did not lure out-of-town buyers into their jurisdiction, as illustrated by the fact that Ft. Lauderdale, which had the second-most cocaine-trafficking arrests in Broward, did not arrest anyone from outside of Florida for cocaine trafficking while Sunrise arrested 39 people from outside of Florida between 2009 and August 2013. Even in south Florida, the wholesale price of cocaine is so high that it is extremely difficult to make any profit, but the Sunrise PD and paid informants were offering low enough prices that it is a near certainty that they attracted otherwise law-abiding citizens looking to make a quick buck, which arguably constitutes entrapment. The suburban town of Sunrise is bringing in three times as much in forfeiture funds as any other city in Broward ($2 million last year and $4 million in 2011).
Is there really any incentive to put the real “bad guys” away (the cartels and their contacts in the U.S.) when lower level dealers are bringing in a steady and reliable stream of funding to police departments? The answer is no because, while Sunrise PD’s practice of targeting people outside of their jurisdiction for arrest is unusual, it is technically legal. Just as mass incarceration has given rise to prisons for profit, asset forfeiture abuse has led to policing for profit. Few to no law enforcement officers believe that they are winning the War on Drugs, but they are fighting harder than ever, so the question becomes: why? And the truth is that it is a cash grab—an easy way for police departments to legally make large amounts of badly needed money. The Sun-Sentinel investigation revealed that, while purporting to lock up the so-called bad guys they arrested, Sunrise PD was only interested in making money. Examining the arrests of 100 people for buying cocaine from Sunrise Police over the past 5 years, $3 million in cash along with numerous vehicles and other property was seized despite only two of those 100 arrests leading to the 15-year mandatory minimum for cocaine trafficking in Florida.
Acceptance of forfeiture abuse raises troubling questions about the intentions behind the drug war because it is clearly unwinnable if winning means eliminating or decreasing drug use or drug-related violence. One must seriously consider the validity of Dr. Gabor Mate’s suggestion in The House I Live In that the drug war is a success for the elite, maintaining the status quo and current power dynamics by oppressing marginalized populations, specifically poor people, black men, and, in Sunrise, Hispanics. Perhaps the shorter sentences combined with Southern states leading the country in recidivism due to laws that severely limit opportunities for anyone ever convicted of a felony are simply meant to push people back into drug dealing as a way to make money. With a drug conviction on their records, it would be easy for Sunrise police to find probable cause to search these people and, once again, seize their assets if they end up involved with drug trafficking after their release from prison. Considering prisons breed more savvy, violent criminals rather than teaching incarcerated people marketable skills, it is not unrealistic to believe that many of these people would have no option than to turn to drug dealing again. Correctional control often prevents formerly-incarcerated people from leaving the area where they were arrested and police are actually encouraged to create a culture of recidivism because, each time these people are arrested, there are more assets to seize. Because we are talking about mostly non-violent drug offenders interacting primarily with informants, the police do not have much to lose by robbing someone, labeling them a felon, and setting them free after a few months or simply placing them on long-term probation with ridiculously high monthly costs for monitoring and court costs.
Sgt. Hughes’ direct supervisor, Capt. Robert Voss stated, “You really can’t do drug work without informants” when justifying the $1.2 million paid to 79 informants since 2007 by the city of Sunrise. One female informant, reported to be a “beautiful, buxom brunette” used seduction as she was paid over $800,000 for her role in 63 sting operations. While some informants work for money, others do so to avoid prison sentences for their own drug crimes. Informants must fill out a one-page application* and Sgt. Hughes says they are briefed on what entrapment is, but no formal training is required for informants to work for Sunrise PD, luring big-time drug dealers to buy cocaine from Sunrise police and getting a cut of the money. The odd one-page application asks for a code name, the names of any “criminal associates,” and the informant’s “source of supply.” Since many worked as paid informants rather than trying to work off criminal charges, was their “source of supply” the Sunrise police that they worked for? Some informants approached Sunrise PD looking to work as paid informants. Using untrained confidential informants is an extremely risky practice for more reasons than the fact that they may provide unreliable or inadmissible evidence due to lack of training and the code of conduct that simply says informants are forbidden from engaging in “any activities that would constitute entrapment.” Strangely, three out of nine items included in the confidential informant “code of conduct” were redacted when the Sun-Sentinel made a public records request. As Sgt. Hughes states, CI’s do not undergo any formal training and they do often engage in activities considered to raise severe entrapment issues. To see the potential horror of using untrained confidential informants, look no further than the case of then-recent Florida State University graduate Rachel Hoffman following her arrest and brutal murder at the hands of drug dealers in Tallahassee. Rachel was coerced into working for Tallahassee PD as an informant, under duress, posing as a cocaine buyer. Her crime? Low-level marijuana distribution and possession of a small amount of MDMA. She was not allowed to consult an attorney before being forced to buy cocaine from strangers, leading to her untimely death when police lost track of her.
If confidential informants are essential to drug busts, we have to ask whether it is worth risking the high potential for the murder of young people coerced into working as CI’s to fight an unwinnable War on Drugs to further line the pockets of brutal, greedy warrior cops. Informant misconduct has led to police or prosecutors having to abandon or drop cases when issues of entrapment are considered too severe. The issues must have been quite severe, as Sunrise police have frequently set up two-for-one deals and, more problematically, deals involving providing cocaine on consignment. Defense attorneys for those caught in Sunrise PD’s web point to the 1999 decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach: “consignment arrangement for the sale of drugs represents governmental conduct which this court cannot condone.” Sunrise police offering cocaine on consignment is likely to be considered entrapment when reviewed by higher courts because it stands to reason that someone without money to purchase cocaine would not be looking to buy cocaine if not for the conduct of law enforcement (offering cocaine on consignment). Many suspects only took possession of the drugs when offered large amounts on consignment. Informants have even threatened violence when targets refused to buy or help them sell cocaine.
The Sun-Sentinel’s investigative report detailing how much money Sunrise PD was bringing in through ethically and legally questionable methods brought an end to the unusual and misguided scheme, much to the chagrin of Sunrise Mayor Michael Ryan and four of the five commissioners, all supporters of the reverse sting operations. The Greater Sunrise Chamber of Commerce and Commissioner Larry Sofield vocally supported Sunrise police, upset following the program’s end. Commissioner Sofield somewhat sarcastically addressed the Sun-Sentinel saying, “I think you have done a great service to the community. Unfortunately I think it was the criminal community that you have done service to.” As far as I can tell, the police were the ones selling (and giving away) cocaine. The Sun-Sentinel simply brought attention to a program that would require an incredible amount of oversight and transparency to continue running and, considering that transparency was enough to shut the program down, it seems like the cops had something to hide. State Rep. Katie Edwards, a Democrat from Sunrise, stated that she will meet with city officials to learn more to find out if the police practices are “tantamount to entrapment and run afoul of the Constitution.”
At least Sunrise police did not have to learn about the consequences of policing for profit the hard way, as was the case in Chandler, Arizona, where another department was engaged in extensive policing-for-profit. Officer Carlos Ledesma and two suspects were shot to death while two other officers were injured during an undercover reverse sting in Chandler involving 500 pounds of marijuana, but the marijuana was not real, so cops were not taking drugs off the street, and the suspects had less than $1,000 cash, likely planning to rob the “dealer” cops. Policing for profit is a dangerous game, created by asset forfeiture laws and fueled by networks of unidentified confidential informants with unknown motives. Until forfeiture reform becomes a major issue in the drug policy reform community, we will continue to see police abusing forfeiture laws for profit. As drug policy reformers, we need to remove the profit incentive for police to put so much energy and resources into fighting drug crimes, which should not be crimes in the first place. If police departments no longer have that profit incentive to focus on narcotics stings, then their budgets will shrink due to lack of forfeiture funds and they will need to become more circumspect in their policing practices, which will likely lead to police officers tackling real crime and targeting real, violent criminals.
I want to extend a special thanks to the Sun-Sentinel and reporters Megan O’Matz & John Maines along with photographer Susan Stocker for publishing such a fantastic investigative report on the Sunrise PD’s forfeiture abuse: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/palm-beach/wellington/fl-sunrise-cops-money-selling-drugs-1006,0,7669964.htmlpage. Their investigative report provided the information I addressed in this article and the Sun-Sentinel deserves a massive amount of credit for shedding light on this potentially unconstitutional and certainly unethical program, leading to its end.
O’Matz and Maines on how they exposed the unethical reverse sting program: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/fl-sunrise-cops-money-selling-drugs2-1006,0,1931783.story
On the role the Sun-Sentinel played in ending the dangerous reverse stings:
*Sunrise Police Confidential Informant Application (some parts redacted by Sunrise PD): http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/broward/sunrise/fl-sunrise-cops-money-selling-drugs3-1006,0,1529191.htmlstory